Carbon Critical

Oct 01, 2020

A Transatlantic Green Deal

A Biden victory could pave the way for a big US climate package to match the European Green Deal. However, the checks and balances of the US political system may still throw up obstacles.

A graph showing US, EU and China CO2 emissions

Americans are fond of saying that any upcoming election is the “most important of our lifetimes.” But this time, it is undoubtedly true, and not just for the United States, but for the world.

In fact, it is hard to overstate the importance of the US presidential elections on November 3 when it comes to fighting climate change. “Policy decisions made [in the next few decades] are likely to result in changes to Earth’s climate system measured in millennia,” as 22 climate scientists observed in a 2016 article in the journal Nature. This is because the climate system risks passing certain tipping points after which a change is essentially irreversible. For example, more and more of the gigantic Greenland ice sheet is melting every year. If it has indeed passed a tipping point, as one recent study claims, it will continue to lose more ice than it gains, even in colder years. Reducing emissions (and thus eventually temperatures) would not put it back together again.

So the clock is ticking, and the EU, which is in the process of implementing itsown Green Deal, needs partners for climate change mitigation. When it comes to transatlantic climate cooperation, the EU will—like any good newspaper or politician awaiting election returns—needs to have two different plans for the day after November 3.

If Trump Wins

In a second Trump term, the US federal government would continue to roll back policies meant to reduce emissions. President Donald Trump will withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, a process he started when Washington submitted the official notification of its intent to withdraw last year and which can be completed on November 4, the day after the election. On the domestic front, Trump has replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan with a weaker rule that allows power plants to emit more greenhouse gas. He has proposed eliminating regulations governing methane leaks by the oil and gas industry, among others, and he has relaxed rules governing emissions from automobiles, going so far as to seek to deny US states the right to set their own, stricter standards.

Most of Trump’s emissions-increasing policies come in the form of federal regulations, which are often successfully challenged in the courts, rather than Congressional legislation. (For the most part Obama also made climate policy in this way.) On the one hand, a President Biden could change course using executive-branch authority, even with a deadlocked Congress. On the other hand, it suggests that a second Trump administration, with more time to refine its executive orders and appoint friendly judges, could do major damage to the climate, even with a deadlocked Congress.

So if Trump returns to the White House, EU foreign-policy makers will have to spend another four years hyping up their cooperation with subnational US bodies. The European External Action Service is proud of its work on this front, which includes support for the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, which the EU co-chairs with former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as direct cooperation with US states through the United States Climate Alliance. The latter has resulted in some concrete action, like the EU and California agreeing to share knowledge on carbon markets, but it’s not transformative collaboration or anything that could be described as a transatlantic Green Deal.

Trump would not be able to prevent all US climate action in a second term: despite the president’s best efforts to prop it up, the US coal industry is in free fall. Moreover, Democrat-led US states and cities would redouble their efforts to cut emissions in response to a Trump victory, while major US firms would continue making their own climate pledges—Google announced in September that it would run its entire business on carbon-free energy by 2030.

Yet the European Commission and the White House would be more likely to end up in conflict than cooperating. The EU’s sensible intention to implement a carbon border tax will incur at least as much resentment in Trump’s Washington as have the faltering European efforts to tax US tech giants. Chinese President’s Xi Jinping’s encouraging announcement at the UN General Assembly—he intends to guide China to net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2060—made even clearer that in a second Trump term Europe would be much more aligned with China on a key strategic issue than with its old transatlantic ally. Chinese policy decisions are so consequential because the country emits more greenhouse gas than Europe and the US combined (see graph above).

If Biden Wins

The Biden campaign has released a serious climate plan, proposing to spend nearly €2 trillion on a “Clean Energy Revolution.” The long-term objective is to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050, which is also the EU’s target date for net-zero. Joe Biden promises to focus on climate diplomacy in his first 100 days by convening a “climate world summit” where major powers should make more ambitious climate pledges, and by reaching international agreements to reduce emissions in shipping and aviation.

Senate Democrats have put out their own plan. This, too, recognizes that the US cannot solve the problem on its own and calls for “integrating climate change… into foreign policy” and “enhanced US aid programs” for climate action. The authors approvingly cite EU climate policy several times, fretting that the US is “falling behind its main economic competitors.”

These documents, like the 2019 Green New Deal House resolution, provide a good basis for US-EU climate cooperation under Biden. On the practical level, working together might entail reviving bodies like the US-EU Energy Council, launched in 2009. On a big-picture, strategic level, the EU and US could throw their joint weight around at the November 2021 COP26 conference, where Paris signatories will discuss their latest emissions-reduction targets. The transatlantic powers could eventually form the core of what economist William Nordhaus calls a “climate club,” whose members agree not only to undertake harmonized emissions reductions but also, crucially, to punish free-riders.

Sick and Tired of Winning

Whether Biden and the Democrats would be able to enact their climate plans is another question. Biden’s pledge to aim for net-zero certainly faces more hurdles to becoming official policy than does Xi’s announcement.

One obstacle is the real risk of a contested result in the presidential election, with only a dangerously politicized Supreme Court to play arbiter. The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has raised the stakes of what both sides were already framing as a life-or-death contest. Trump hopes to install his replacement for Ginsberg, the conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett, before the next president takes office. If he is successful, the Supreme Court will become more receptive to claims of climate overregulation and more willing to block executive-branch climate action, as it did in 2016 when it granted a request from 27 states that the implementation of Obama’s power plant emission rules be halted in order to prevent damage to their economies.

Making policy by passing laws in Congress is a more secure route for addressing climate change, but a new Democratic president might not be able to count on sufficient support on Capitol Hill to pass any kind of Green New Deal. Recent forecasts by the FiveThirtyEight website give the Democrats about a 60 percent chance of winning a majority in the Senate, notwithstanding the Republicans’ structural advantage in that chamber. Each state gets two senators regardless of its size—never mind that half of the US population lives in just nine states. And Republicans tend to have the majority in the smaller states.

What’s more, a simple majority doesn’t always get you very far in the anti-majoritarian US system. 41 of the 100 Senators may block major legislation by “filibustering,” i.e. exploiting a Senate rule that requires 60 Senators to agree to end debate before the body can vote. This blocking minority need not represent a large share of the country: whereas the EU stipulates that a blocking minority must represent more than 35 percent of the population, the US has no such rule. It is technically possible for states representing just 12 percent of the population to send 42 Senators to Washington and obstruct major legislation.

While the Senate playing field isn’t nearly that tilted yet, the threat of various legislative veto players in the US obstructing popular climate action is very real. Republicans in the state of Oregon fled the statehouse in February because they knew that the Democrats, who held the majority, would pass a bill creating an emissions trading system if they had a quorum.

This is why Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris said during her own campaign that she was “prepared to get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal.” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said more recently that removing it was “not off the table”.

Removing the filibuster might clear the way for Democrats to pass a major climate bill, but it would trigger a fierce backlash. Indeed, however it is passed, any Green New Deal is likely to come under as much fire as “Obamacare” has, with attorneys and legislators of all kinds taking aim at anything that could be construed as unconstitutional.

It’s not You, It’s Me

The point is that US-EU climate cooperation is likely to be messy even in the event of a Biden victory. Obviously there is a big difference between having a US president who ignores the threat of climate change and a president with a real plan to mitigate it. For one thing, the holder of the White House will have significant power over some international aspects of climate policy, such as rejoining the Paris Agreement or cooperating more with the EU, as Biden intends to do. But sub-national EU-US cooperation and other forms of multilateralism, also including private companies, will remain all too relevant during the next presidential term, no matter who wins.

Noah J. Gordon is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY's climate columnist.

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